I have always struggled with internal yearnings that feel at odds. To make art <-> To make a difference.
For years I would go back and forth. Doing work as a facilitator for organizations that made a difference alternating with time in the studio. I would make bridges between them when I could. Using experiential creative techniques in training. Building websites or making posters for organizations.
One of the driving forces behind my starting my current business VisualsSpeak is to make a difference with my art. In a more integrated way.
Making a difference is collaborative
Some of the most powerful changes occur when a group of people come together, each with their unique gifts and offer what they can to the effort. I feel particularly blessed, because my customers are AMAZING. They make differences across different occupations, groups, organizations, cultures, and causes.
When I can create something, even a tiny thing, to help them do their work better, I can help make a difference that ripples out into the world.
Collaborating with customers
Here is one of my amazing customers, Mari Alexander. She is a therapist and physicians assistant who also does diversity and intercultural consulting. When she isn’t raising her two teenage sons, she is involved with running a non-profit Safe Passage to Motherhood. The goal of this org is to save the lives of mothers and babies in the developing world.
I’ve written about Mari and Safe Passage to Motherhood before. I’ve been working with her for several years. She uses our products in most of her various work roles.
Art Every Day work goes to Africa
When Mari saw the artwork I was doing for Art Every Day Month two years ago, she saw the potential it has for working cross-culturally. We began discussing some of the challenges she was trying to overcome working in Bware Kenya.
- trying to get people to tell them what was really going on
- Kenyan cultural norms about seeing talking about success as improper bragging
- difficulty getting people to talk about dreams or the future
- working across different languages
- working with the limited resources in a rural low income village
We knew VisualsSpeak worked to help many of these issues, but we needed to provide images that would work in the context. Moving away from photographs and toward paintings, allowed me to focus on sparking more general human ideas. I adjusted some of the images to darker skin tones, and sent them over to Kenya in 2010.
Stories of Feeling Empowered
When people began sharing stories inspired by the images, there was a recurring theme about feeling empowered. The women had learned to identify birth emergencies and how to teach others to do the same. They had an important role and message. Those feelings weren’t the norm before. They kept hearing women saying they were becoming someone.
Using Empowerment to Encourage Resourcefulness
The Home Based Life Saving System that was being taught to the villagers is a series of five visits, ideally delivered in 18 months. In the past it has cost other groups hundreds of thousands of dollars to send trainers from the US into the developing world. Safe Passage to Motherhood has never had that kind of money. It has operated on donations from the family and friends of the group in Portland Oregon. Part of the work has been to show that you can effectively operate the program with far less money if you have volunteers and relationships to draw from. The limited resources has meant the work has been spread out over a longer timeframe. The final visit starts next week.
The group in Bware has been very successful. The small group trained by one midwife from Portland has now reached over 15 thousand other people to spread the word about how to identify birth emergencies and get those women to the help they need. As many as 1 in 16 women die in childbirth in Aftica.
There have been no maternal deaths in the village since the program started.
Mari has been reminding the group that they needed to think about how they were going to raise money to support the ongoing work into the future. Safe Passage to Motherhood has been providing training materials and subsidizing ground transportation. It’s a tiny amount of money on US standards, but a lot in rural Kenya. She kept reminding them of the stories they told about how strong and resourceful they were becoming.
Supporting Spreading Home Based Life Saving Skills
When Mari returned to Kenya in the spring, the women had been working on ways to raise money to support spreading their work to surrounding villages. They noticed when groups gathered in the village most people sat on the ground or on benches. Many of the meetings would go on for several hours, and it wasn’t comfortable.
They decided to buy chairs and rent them out. With the money they raised from the chairs, they bought dishes. After all, they were really good at cooking for the Safe Passage Training events. They were saving to add a tent for their new catering company. The Portland group was more than happy to contribute the rest of the funds they needed. The tent arrived the day after they returned to the US.
Lots of elements add up to make a difference
Did art make a difference here? Maybe. Most likely it has been a whole series of inputs from a huge network of people. What I know is I love watching my customers make friends with others in the developing world, and use my images to help see how they can work together more effectively. I love helping this tiny group in Portland raise a couple of thousand dollars so they can fly to Kenya as medical volunteers and unleash an incredible passion for helping make others lives better.
Want to help?
The fifth trip to Bware Kenya is next week. Two midwives will be going to conduct an assessment of the effectiveness of the program. I know they are short several thousand dollars of their transportation costs. I also know they like to be able to buy medical supplies to leave in the village when they are there, and there are no funds for that this time.
I’ve watched this group do amazing things with tiny budgets. If you can, please join me and make a donation
They want their own sets of images!
I’m really excited that the trainers in Bware have requested their own sets of images to use in future programs. So this year for Art Every Day Month, part of what I am doing is making those sets. It feels really good to be using my work this way. Just a small piece of trying to make a difference in others lives in some small way.
Spread the word
Grassroots efforts like this rely on sharing the stories of the good work. Can you share it with your networks using the buttons below? Thanks!